Monday, December 1, 2014

Plaintiff is a prevailing party but gets reduced attorneys' fees in IDEA case

One of the reasons we can file civil rights cases is that the plaintiff's lawyer recovers his legal fees if he wins the case. Most civil rights plaintiffs cannot afford an attorney, and if they can pay for some legal services, they cannot afford to cover all legal expenses, which can exceed $100,000. So the questions remain in many cases: when is the plaintiff a prevailing party, and if she is one, how much money does she (or her lawyer) get?

The case is K.L. v. Warwick Valley School District, a summary order decided on November 25. The parents sued under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, which ensures that disabled students get the educational services they need. These time-intensive cases cost a fortune. When the case settled, the parents moved for attorneys' fees, and the district objected. The trial court awarded the fees, and the Court of Appeals (Pooler, Parker and Wesley) affirms.

“[A] plaintiff ‘prevails’ when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant’s behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff.” Pursuant to the parties’ settlement agreement, Warwick Valley provided K.L.’s child summer 2012 ESY services, which it had originally sought to deny and not all of which it was legally obligated to provide pursuant to the pendency provisions of the IDEA and New York State Law. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j); 8 N.Y.C.R.R. § 200.5(m). This relief modified Warwick Valley’s behavior in a way that benefitted K.L. and provided him with a portion of the relief sought in his hearing request. This provides a sufficient basis for prevailing party status.
Being a prevailing party does not mean you get all your money. The court then has to decide how much legal fees the defendant has to fork over. Appellate courts don't like to second-guess trial court attorneys' fees rulings, and this ruling reflects that deference. "Although the relief obtained by K.L. was comparatively small, he achieved a primary goal in bringing these proceedings: ensuring full summer 2012 ESY for his child. The mere fact that relief is small in nature does not imply that a plaintiff’s success is de minimis."

Plaintiff also takes up an appeal, arguing that the district court did not award enough in fees. The Court of Appeals rejects the argument that the hourly rate was too low. Although experienced attorneys in the Southern District get $300 to $450 per hour in complicated educational cases, the district court awarded plaintiff's attorney $250 per hour. "Taking into account the straightforward nature of this case, which involved few disputed issues and a prompt settlement prior to any administrative proceedings, the district court deemed an hourly rate of $250 appropriate."

A few other rulings: first the Court of Appeals says the district court did not abuse its discretion in reducing the fees for limited success. "The district court appropriately concluded that the settlement agreement only afforded K.L. a portion of the relief originally sought in the hearing request, with K.L. conceding several of his original demands in order to settle the proceedings."

In addition, while plaintiffs normally get fees for the time spent drafting the attorneys' fees petition, the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding plaintiffs no fees for this petition. This ruling is somewhat remarkable, as plaintiffs usually get at least some money for this work. Not this case. "'If the fee claims are exorbitant or the time devoted to presenting them is unnecessarily high, the judge may refuse further compensation or grant it sparingly.' Here, the district court concluded that (1) thirty hours was an excessive hourly total for litigating a straightforward fee petition, and (2) the underlying fee request was exorbitant. In light of our previous statement that a district court “may refuse further compensation,' in such circumstances, we find no error in the decision to award no fees for the fee petition phase." In other words, plaintiff is punished for asking for too much money.

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